How Long Is That in Dog Minutes?

Can animals tell time? The closest I have to a personal scientific study on this question comes from my own experience. I work at home, and at approximately 3pm every day, my two dogs come over to my desk, “nose” my legs to get my attention, and look up at me with that “It’s time for your walk…if you feed us first we’ll come with you” look I’ve come to know so well. So I get up, feed them, and take them on their walk.

The “control group” in this experiment are the household’s two cats, who live in a different part of the house away from the dogs, but similarly have a tendency to show up in the kitchen precisely at noon every day, clamoring for the can of Finicky Cat Gourmet Cat Pacifier Chow they get to share each day at that time. So my personal experience is that both cats and dogs can tell time, or at least the amount of time that has passed since they were last fed.

Scientists conduct a similar experiment

A recent research study conducted on rats at the University of Western Ontario seems to replicate the findings of my study…in some ways. The scientists designed an experiment in which rats were trained to visit different parts of a maze at different times of the day. Some parts of the maze contained food pellets that the rats consider acceptable, but not quite in the same ballpark as the food left in other parts of the maze – bits of tasty cheese, which they prefer almost as much as my cats prefer the gourmet brand of cat food over the brands that cost half as much. The researchers were looking for three different characteristics of the rats’ behavior – exactly when (time of day) they visited the parts of the maze containing the cheese, how long ago the cheese had last been placed there (number of “rat minutes” that had elapsed since the last cheese discovery), and “when plus how long ago” (whether they seemed to remember the time of day they last encountered cheese, with a remembered interval of time added to it to calculate when it would next appear).

Interestingly enough, the only “cue” that the rats seemed to use successfully to time their visits to the Tasty Cheese Neighborhoods was how long ago the cheese had been found there earlier.

The researchers concluded that – unlike the nature of human memory, which involves retaining a memory of past events and a somewhat precise memory of when those events happened – the rats just remember that a certain event happened. As researcher William Roberts put it, “The rats remember whether they did something, such as hoarded food a few hours or five days ago. The more time that has passed, the weaker the memory may be…they do not remember that the event occurred at a specific point in past time.” Roberts believes that the rats are “stuck in time,” living in the present, unable to conceptually “time travel” back into the past or forward into the future in the ways that humans can.

Other researchers agree, but I’m not sure I do, or want to

Experiments conducted on other animals, such as pigeons and monkeys, confirm Roberts’ theory that animals can’t really conceive of the future. Given a choice between a small food reward immediately (in the present) as opposed to a much larger food reward in the future, they consistently go for “Give me the treat you’ve got in your hand now. Right now.”

But this lack of an ability to foresee or plan for the future seems to be intuitively incorrect when you consider the example of squirrels hoarding food for the coming winter. Surely they must have a notion of the future, or they wouldn’t be storing the food to be eaten later. Scientists who believe in the “animals live only in the present” theory have an explanation for this one, too. They performed experiments in which they stole the hoarded food from where the squirrels had stashed it, and the squirrels kept gathering food and hoarding it anyway. Similarly, the squirrels didn’t stop gathering more food and hoarding it once they’d collected more than enough to see them through the winter. This led the researchers to believe that the gathering-hoarding behavior was purely instinctive, and not based on a conscious ability to “plan for the future.”

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I can see Roberts’ point, and believe that my dogs are not so much looking forward to the future when they “nose” me for food, and are just remembering how long it’s been since the last time they were fed. On the other hand, I like to believe that they do have a concept of the future, and that yelling at them when they chase our cats when they see them will eventually train them to understand that when they encounter the cats in the future in “their” area of the house that they don’t really need chase them. This belief has not worked out in real life, but I can always hope.



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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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